By Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar
The inclination within people to create words has a limitless value for the alteration of language and linguistic style. Many places in India and Southeast Asia have been named with the words
Actually the word “citizen” means a resident of this kind of wall-enclosed city. Neither the English “citizen” nor the Bengali nágarika refers to the resident of a particular country. In other words, the pure English expression for the English word “citizen”, as we use it today, as well as for the word nágarika in Bengali, is “bonafide inhabitant”. The Farsi word for this is mulkii.
This wall-enclosed city used to be called hábelii in Urdu and háolii in Bhojpuri. There is a place in Monghyr District by the name of Habelii Kharagpur. According to the practice of those days the main gate of the hábelii or nagara used to be closed at nine at night and the key used to remain with the city-father or the sheriff.
Many places in India and Southeast Asia were named with the words pura, nagara, upanagara, etc. added on. We have taken many of these words from Farsi, for example, the Urdu word mańd́i meaning “marketing centre”; in Sanskrit it is called vipańana kendra or vipańi, that is, “where commodities are taken for the purposes of selling, or vipańana”. Many people mistakenly use the word “marketing” to refer to shopping. Actually “marketing” means selling. The villagers go to the market or bazaar to sell their goods and produce, that is, they go for marketing. We go to the market to buy potatoes or pat́ol [wax gourd], that is, we go for shopping. The pure Bengali word for “marketing centre” or mańd́i is postá. There is a Postá Bazaar in Calcutta. Have you all read the famous poem by Sukumar Ray? Shunte pelum postá giye/Tomár náki meye viye [When I went to market/ I heard about your daughter’s wedding].
If a place has a village and a flourishing market for buying and selling then it is called a gaiṋja (ganj-a). The English distorted the pronunciation to ganj (spelled “gunge”). In this way the place called Ballygunge came from the name of Mr. Bailey, Tolleygunge from Mr. Tolley, and so on. The actual pronunciation should be Baligaiṋja, T́áligaiṋja. The common people of east Bengal say Náráyańgaiṋja, Munsiigaiṋja. They pronounce these names correctly. Now if someone persists with a faulty pronunciation should we follow them blindly or should we open their eyes to their error? You tell me.
There is another word in Bengali – hát́. The word hát́ comes from the Sanskrit word hat́t́a. For example, if many hát’s are strung together then it is called hat́t́amálá in Sanskrit. Certainly many of you have read the story “Hat́t́amálá”.(3) In Sanskrit a very large hát́ is called hat́t́ika. Hat́t́a plus the suffix śńik makes hat́t́ika. Although grammatically speaking the meaning of hat́t́ika should be “small hát́”, in actuality it was used to mean “large hát́”. The Bengali word which is derived from hat́t́a is hát́, for example, rájárhát́, bágerhát́, májherhát́, and so on. The Bengali word derived from the Sanskrit hat́t́ika is hát́i. For example, naehát́i comes from navahat́t́ika, nalahát́i from nalahat́t́ika, gaohát́i from guvákahat́t́ika, etc. In south Bengal there was a tendency to pronounce hát́ hát́á and ghát́ ghát́á; as a result we get Páthureghát́á, Beleghát́á, Murgiihát́á, Daramáhát́á, Gariyáhát́á, and so on.
There is normally a shortage of fodder in the district of Nadia, famous for its bumper crop autumnal paddy. It is bordered by Burdwan, the district of winter paddy. Hay [khaŕ] used to be imported by boat along the Jalangi River to Nadia District from Burdwan’s Nandanaghát́ (Nádanghát́). At that time this hay-laden Jalangi River was renamed the Khaŕiyá or Kháre River. In other words, although this tributary of the Padma River was known as the Jalangi River in Murshidabad District, its common name was the Khaŕe River. There was a huge cattle market [garur hát́] near Nadia District’s cowherding centre, Reui village (later on this Reui village became known as Krishnanagar) – Sanskrit gohat́t́ika → Prákrta gohad́d́ia → Demi-Prákrta gohád́i → old Bengali goháŕi → modern Bengali goyáŕi. The British made Goyáŕi the district headquarters of Nadia District. We still say the two together – Goyáŕi-Krishnanagar.
A large centre for buying and selling, whether in a village or in a city, is called a kasbá in Farsi. There is a place in 24 Paraganas called Kasbá. The old name of the city of Jessore was Kasbá. The real Jessore was included within Khulna District when Khulna District was created. Khulna is not a very old district. It was formed by piecing together 24 Paraganas’ Sátkśiirá, Jessore’s Khulna and most of Bakharganj’s Bagerhat. After the place called Jessore was included within Khulna District there was no utility in keeping the name Jessore for the remaining portion of the district. Still the name Jessore continued in use. From then on the people started calling the district headquarters at Kasbá Jessore. When I was a child I have seen the village girls telling the booking clerk when they went to buy tickets: “Sir, would you please give me tickets for Kasbá.” Then the ticket clerk would get out tickets for Jessore and give them to them.
The British built soldiers’ barracks at Ghughudáuṋgá to the north of Calcutta. The incessant weapon-fire there used to make the sound dumdum. It was like a violent boom-boom [damá-dam] on Diipavali night. The village people all around became impatient with the noise and gave the place the name Damdamá [mound for target practice]. Later on, when a railway station was built there it was named Dumdum. The actual name of the place was, therefore, Damdamá. When the local people went to Sealdah station to buy tickets they would say: “Sir, please give us tickets for Ghughudáuṋgá,” and the ticket clerk would give them tickets for Dumdum. No one wanted a ticket for Sinthi, perhaps because Sinthi was not as famous as Ghughudáuṋgá.
The Aryans established their first colony in northwest India. Later they started slowly advancing eastwards. First they came to the Saptasindhu, now called The Punjab, which means the land of five rivers – the Sutlej, Bias, Ravi, Chenub and Jhelum. Previously the name of this region was the Saptasindhu. Bear in mind here that the Vedic word sindhu means both “sea” and “large river”, as does the Farsi word dariyá. Anyhow, when the Aryans encountered the Sindhu River they gave this very large river the designation nada [large river] and named it the Sindhu. The Sindhu has six tributaries – the Shatadru, Irávatii, Candrabhágá, Vitastá, Vipáshá and Kábul. Together they formed the Saptasindhu [seven sindhus] of that time and later on it became The Punjab.
When they arrived in The Punjab and discovered an environment eminently suited to farming they became very happy and began to settle there. Their Vedic language underwent transformation and became known as Paeshácii Prákrta in the Saptasindhu. The modern languages descended from this Paeshácii Prákrta are Panjabi, Pahari (previously it was called Pahari-Panjabi) and Dogri. The Multani language, being a mixture of Panjabi and Sindhi, shows the influences of both Paeshácii Prákrta and Pahlavii Prákrta. Even today these languages use many words derived from Vedic, for example, ind, pińd́a, pińd́i, etc. The village that was settled by the Rawal Brahmans of south India is Rawalpindi. Although sugar is called khánŕ (which comes from the Vedic word khańd́a) in Panjabi, sugar, especially red sugar, is called sharkará in Vedic and Sanskrit. Since we learned how to make sugar from the Chinese it was given the name cinii in the spoken language. Sharkará is an ancient word from which comes the pure Hindi sakkar, the Marathi sáṋkar, the Tamil sákar, the Latin [saccharum] and the French sucre. The French sucre underwent alteration and became the English “sugar”.
The word khui comes from the Vedic word khudikam and it means “well”. The modern Bengali word kúyo comes from the Mágadhii Prákrta word kúa which comes from the Sanskrit word kúpa. From the Sanskrit word indrakúpa comes the Mágadhii Prákrta word indraua, from that the Demi-Prákrta word indarua, from that indárá, and from that the ultramodern pronunciation inárá. In Sanskrit indra means “best”, thus a large well, or inárá, is called indrakúpa. In those days the shál tree was considered the best tree. The place which had an abundance of these shál trees or indravrkśa was known as Indrapura → Indpur → Indpur, which is a village in Bankura District. The Pahlavii Prákrta word put́t́ara or put́rá comes from the Sanskrit word puttra. It is the same in modern Sindhi. The Panjabi word dohtar comes from the Sanskrit word daohitra, however in many areas of north India daohitra is called náti which comes from the Sanskrit word naptá. Naptá means “that which prevents the fall of a bodiless soul”. According to the social practice of the time, those with whose help one was saved from social downfall during the period of mourning also used to be called naptá, nápita or nápte. From the Vedic nupta comes the Paeshácii Prákrta nutta, in Demi-Prákrta nuta and in modern Panjabi nu which means “daughter-in-law”. In the rest of north India, however, “daughter-in-law” is called putohu – Sanskrit putravadhú → puttavahu → putohu.
After that the Aryans advanced further east. The land grew greener and lusher. They had never seen so much green before. In Vedic dhánya means “green vegetation” so after crossing the Saptasindhu they named the new land east of it Haritdhánya; this became Hariahánya in Shaorasenii Prákrta, Hariháná in Demi-Shaorasenii, and Hariyáná in modern Hariyánavii (which is a very close relative of Hindi). Similarly, we get the word Ludhiyáná. In ancient times the Aryans used to use the pollen from the forest tree flower by the name of lodhra as a cosmetic.
Dháráyantre snáner sheśe dhúper dhonyá dita keshe
Lodhra phuler shubhra reńu mákhta mukhe bálá
Kálágurur guru gandha lege thákta sáje
Kuruvaker parta cúŕá kálo kesher májhe
[After bathing in the fountain/they would scent their hair with incense/the maidens would smear their face with the lustrous pollen of the lodhra flower/the scent of dark sandalwood wafted from their clothes/they wore red amaranth in their black hair]
Lodhradhánya → Lodhdhahána → Ludhiháná → Ludhiyáná.
They advanced even further east, travelling from the west towards the sunrise in the east until they came to the region lying between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, at the point where they are farthest from each other, between Gangotri and Yamunotri. After that the two rivers gradually converged until they met up at Prayága. The area lying between these two rivers was the ancient Brahmávartta or Brahmarśidesha which later on became Shúrasena and even later was given the name Do-áb in Farsi, that is, “the land of two rivers”. The ancient capital of Brahmavartta was Vrśńipura (today Vit́hur near Kanpur). Later on, after its name had changed to Shurasena, the capital became Mathura. Before Krśńa, the king of Shurasena was Kaḿsa. His capital was also at Mathura. The Kayasthas of north India that live in the former Brahmavartta or Shurasena still call themselves Máthur. Since this last part of Brahmavartta was eminently suited for living, farming and all sorts of developed undertakings, the Aryans gave it the name Prayága (pra – yaj + ghaiṋ = Prayága). Here ya is in the middle of the word [antahstha ya] so according to the rule – padánte padamadhyasthe “ya”-kára “ia” ucyate – prayága became prayága [with the dot below the letter in Bengali script].
The meaning of the verbal root yaj in both Sanskrit and Vedic is “to act”. By adding the suffix na to the root yaj we get the word yajiṋa. Yaj + ghaiṋ makes yága. The meaning of both words is “action”. Thus, “the place where action is performed in an excellent way” is called prayága. The Aryans used to believe that this place was extremely holy. It was their conception that if one took a bath at Prayága then all one’s sins would be washed away, so even now there is a custom among a certain class of people in India to immerse the remains of the deceased at Prayága. There is a saying in Hindi when a wicked person says something spiritual or righteous – Na sho cuhá khá kar billii calii prayág snán [after swallowing nine hundred mice the cat went for a holy bath in the Prayága]. The words yájaka [officiating priest at a ritual], yajamán [person for whom the ritual is performed], etc. come from the verbal root yaj.
As a result of the Aryans settling down at Prayága the region became an illustrious centre for learning and culture. Much later, during the Pathan-Mughal era, it grew into a crowded city and became susceptible to flooding during the rainy season. So during the Pathan era a new city was established not very far away and given the name Álláh-Ábád, or the “abode of Allah”. Later on the Shias gave this place, Álláh-Ábád, the name Iláhábád. In modern Hindi it is called Iláhábád. Both names, Álláhábad and Iláhábád, are used in Urdu. One thing to keep in mind is that all those cities which have the word ábád added at the end of their names were all named during the Pathan or Mughal era, or else later on, for example, Farrukhabad, Muzaffarabad, Alidabad, Jekovabad, Nasirabad (Mymensing), Jahangirabad (Dhaka), Islamabad (Chittagong), Phaejabad (Ayodhya), Shershahabad (Malda), Sharifabad (Burdwan’s Paragana), etc. The new name of Burdwan is Vár-e-Dewán and the name of Paragana is Sharifabad. Hence, if we find the word ábád attached, it helps us to determine the history of the city, and we can be certain that the city is no more than seven hundred years old.
During the Pathan-Mughal era the united name of the provinces of Agra and Ayodhya was Hindustán or Hindustán. Incidentally, I should point out that the word stán or stán is Farsi; its Sanskrit equivalent is sthán. In Urdu as well this Farsi practice is followed.
Sáre jánháse acchá hindustán hamárá
Ham bulbulen hen iskii iyha gulistán hamárá
[Our country, India, is better than the whole world. This is our rose garden and we are the nightingales of the garden.]
During the Pathan era there were three provinces in north India – The Punjab, Hindustan and Bengal. The number of provinces increased during the time of Akbar. The province of Agra was formed from the south, southwest and southeast portions of Hindustan province and the province of Oudh was formed from the northeastern areas. Thus the people of Bengal and The Punjab still refer to the people of Uttar Pradesh as Hindustanis. Some people wonder why should only the people of Uttar Pradesh be called Hindustanis if all of India is Hindustan, however, those who call the people of Uttar Pradesh Hindustanis are not entirely wrong because Hindustan does not refer to all of India. Though in Urdu poetry and in the spoken language the word Hindustan is used for India, this usage is not an historical fact. Bear in mind that in Farsi the actual word for India is not Hindustan but Hind.
After the British came to this country and occupied the provinces of Agra and Oudh they created a new province by joining the two together and gave it the name “United Provinces of Agra and Oudh”, abbreviated UP. Gradually the name UP came to enjoy widespread usage among the common people, so after independence this province was given the name Uttar Pradesh in order to keep the name UP in force. It is also abbreviated UP.
Every sound on earth is meaningful, whether or not we are aware of that meaning. This meaningfulness is bound up with the local language’s phonetics and independent pronunciation. Often we unknowingly forget about this meaningfulness and we try to forget this local independence of pronunciation as well. Though the error we commit in doing so is pardonable to some extent, it is not completely excusable in all cases.
The huge city in the south of England used to be called Londres (the French pronunciation was londre) in France, but because the people of Scotland could not pronounce it properly, and for other reasons as well, the city was called Láńd́án. Nowadays the word Láńd́án has changed into London. I am not saying that the city should be called Londre once again, only that there is a definite need to remember the original historical name of the city. If we cannot properly pronounce the name of the city that has for centuries been called Moscova and instead pronounce it Moscow, we cannot consider that to be entirely appropriate. Leaving aside English, in Bengali and all other languages of the world there is no difficulty in using the word Moscova. Whether or not Moscova can be said in English is a matter to think over as well.
Roma is a historically renowned city. Where is the justification for mistakenly pronouncing it “Rome”? Is it logical to change a proper noun in this way? Where is the logic behind calling a city “Cairo” that has always been called Kahira, both in the ancient Egyptian language and later on in Arabic?
We can call the land that used to be called Filistin in Arabic and which is called Palestine in Hebrew either name we wish according to our convenience. However, if we say the name quickly of the city called Kalikátá because it specializes in quicklime [kalicun] and coir rope [kátá], in the spoken language of that city, and it becomes Kalkátá, then what is the logic behind saying Calcutta in English? It should definitely be written Kalikata in English and it should be done right away. Similarly, there is no justification for writing or saying Burdwan in place of Varddhamán. After reading mistakes like this wise people should correct them.
We have already talked about the word gaiṋja. Now the question arises: What is the original source of the word gaiṋja? There are two opinions regarding this. Some people believe that it is a Farsi word and others say that it is an Indian word. The reason behind this confusion is that in old Farsi we come across the word gaiṋja, while at the same time the word gaiṋja has been used in the spoken languages of north India since ancient times. So we can say that the word gaiṋja is as much Indian as it is Farsi. In the far east of Bengal we have Ashugainj (previous British Tripura District, modern Kumilla District) and west of there is Hazratgainj, Rahmatgainj, and so on.
Like the word gaiṋja, the word luci [a type of fried unleavened bread] is as much Farsi as it is Panjabi, Kashmiri and Bengali. Even if the word luci has come from Farsi, it is as much at home today in Bengali as any native. In the spoken language luci-nuci, leci-neci are both equally correct so those who claim that the word leci comes from the Farsi-Urdu word lecchi are perhaps correct. However in Bengal the word neci with its special characteristics has found its way into our kitchens and pots and pans and rolling pins and mortars. Since ancient times the city of Burdwan has been influenced by north India so some of the residents of Burdwan say lei instead of leci or neci. Lei is actually a Hindustani word. The equivalent Sanskrit word for luci is shakkulii or shaḿkulii. Luci and puri are not the same thing. The Sanskrit synonym for puri is somáliká, which actually means “that which looks like the moon”.
Some place-names have been created by blending Sanskrit and foreign words, for example, Jamalpur. Jámál is an Arabic word while pura is a Sanskrit word. Similar is the case with Mátádiin and Shiuvakhs. Along with Shiuvakhs we have Állávakhs, Khodávakhs, Rahimvakhs, and so on. In a Burdwan village I have seen a Rákhaállá Mańd́al, Rákhahari Mańd́al’s close friend. Both of them have the nickname Rákha. When you see such names you can tell that a cultural blending has taken place.
There is another Bengali word – begun [brinjal]. Some people ascribe to it the far-fetched meaning be – guńa, “without quality”. As a joke it can also be translated into English as “dis-qualification”. It is worth mentioning here that the origin of the word begun is not “absence of quality”, that is, it is not “disqualification” at all. Although brinjal does not have much food value, it does stimulate the flow of saliva and it helps in the digestion of other foods. If brinjal is mixed and eaten together with bitter foods (neem, ucche, etc.) then it counteracts the defects of those foods. The little defect that brinjal does have is that it is classified as an allergic, that is, if one eats too much of it then it can lead to itching.
So the word begun is not a combination of the Farsi prefix be [not] and the word guńa. It is a Sanskrit-derived word. The Sanskrit synonyms for beguna are vártáku, vártákii, vártikii, brhatii, vrntáka, vyauṋgana, and so on. From the Sanskrit word vyauṋgana come the Bengali words begun, báigun, báigan, the Hindi word veigan, and so on.
The long pointed brinjal (kulii begun) is called brhatii in Sanskrit. All brinjals come from China but this brhatii was the last to arrive. At evening time, when the jute factory coolies would return home, they used to enthusiastically buy this kind of brinjal and so it got the name kulii begun. The muktakeshii brinjal common in Bengal is called vártáku in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit name for the white brinjal which many people consider inedible is vrntáka.
Bhakśayan patitohasttasyádapi vedántago dvijah
That is, if one eats white brinjal, red spinach, ciciuṋgá and hill kalmia then even the twice-born versed in the Vedas and Vedanta will meet their downfall.
Anyhow, this white brinjal is called [“eggplant”] in American English. The proper English for all varieties of begun is “brinjal”. Brinjal is called vátáyú in Panjabi. This word comes from the Sanskrit word vártáku. Brinjal came to our country from China a long time ago. There are many other names for it also in Sanskrit. Those of you who have an almanac at home will discover that on certain dates it is forbidden to eat vártáku and on others vrntáka. At any rate, the be of the word begun is not a Farsi prefix.
Another very common word in Bengali is báhádur. Many people think that this word may have come from Farsi. At first glance this seems to be so but actually it has not. There was a common word in Vedic, bhagadhara, which meant “fortunate”. This bhagadhara became bahadara in Prákrta, from that bahádar in Farsi, bahádar in Panjabi, bahádar or bahádur in Urdu, bahadur in Hindi, and in Bengali we clean up this bahádur, dress it in a dhoti and a shawl and set it loose as báhádur.
There is a place in Mymensing District known as Bahadurabad. The word ábád is, of course, Farsi but while the word báhádur may appear to be Farsi it is originally Vedic. In Bengali names one often comes across a mixture of two languages, for example, Házárilál (Farsi-Hindi), Banoyárilál (Vrajabháśá-Hindi), and Phajle Karim (Arabic-Farsi). If the latter were written in only Farsi then it should have been Kudrat-i-Khudá and if it were only Arabic then it should have been Phazal-ul-Karim.
The rule for compound words in Bengali is that if the first word is an adjective ending in a and the second word is suffixed by anat́ or kta then the first word ending becomes ii. For example, bhasma + bhúta = bhasmiibhúta, nava + karańa = naviikarańa. stagita + karańa = stagitiikarańa, ghana + bhúta = ghaniibhúta, etc.
In many people one can recognize a tendency to exclude foreign words. They like to say árám kedárá for “easy-chair” and jharńa kalam for “fountain pen”, however both árám and kedárá in the word árám kedárá are foreign words. What is the justification for importing the foreign words árám and kedárá to replace the foreign word “easy-chair”? Although the word árám also exists in Sanskrit it has a different meaning. Árám in Sanskrit means “small house” or “garden house”.
Although the word jharńa in the word jharńakalam is native Indian, the word kalam is foreign. This kind of tendency cannot be considered beneficial from any point of view. People import and use words as a matter of necessity, and out of necessity we will sit in our “easy-chair” and write in our “diary” with our “fountain-pen”. When we feel the need we will even take a look at our “notebook”.(4) No one can object to this.
Look, many of you cultivate [cáś-ábád] your land, so even if it is a little outside the scope of this discussion I would like to point out that if you tell anyone cáś-ábád kari [I cultivate] then you should know that the word cáś is a pure Bengali word and the word ábád is Farsi. You mix the two when you cultivate. The blue-bloods or orthodox nobility in the world of grammar may find scholarly fault in this but I see no cause for objection. You can say cáś-ábád just as happily as you practise it. The more you practise cáś-ábád and develop it, the more you will find solutions to food problems. Right then. Pick up the plough and the yoke and take to the soil.
(1) This distinction is also no longer observed in modern English. –Trans.
(2) This refers to the practice of using a word because it was used by a respected intellectual in the past, even though that usage is grammatically incorrect. –Trans.
(3) A children’s story written by the author. –Trans.
(4) All the words in quotation marks are English words commonly used in Bengali. –Trans.25 September 1983,